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Khmer Rouge Tribunal sets new standard with first life sentence

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) recently sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to life in prison…

By Heather Roy , in 2012 Blogs Tribunal Talk: Khmer Rouge Stand Trial , on February 17, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) recently sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to life in prison and in the process, finally granted Cambodians some justice.

Duch is sentenced to life in prison. Image courtesy of Reuters via ECCC handout.

Duch oversaw S-21, the prison camp where at least 12,000 people were tortured and murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime. He was sentenced to 35 years in July 2010, but would have only served 19 years due to previous detention.

According to court documents, Duch appealed the sentence by claiming that his role at S-21 did not make him a senior regime leader and, therefore, did not qualify him to be tried under the UN-backed tribunal. Judges disagreed and increased his original sentence to life.

This decision set a new standard for the tribunal and reassured Cambodians that Duch will never be free. Whether or not it repaired the floundering tribunal’s credibility, however, is questionable. The ECCC had to admit flaws in the reasoning of the first case in order to justify changing Duch’s sentence.

“The Supreme Court Chamber held that in determining sentence the Trial Chamber attached undue weight to mitigating circumstances and insufficient weight to the gravity of crimes and aggravating circumstances,” the ECCC said in a statement.

Thousands of Cambodians were tortured in the converted classrooms of S-21 under Duch's direction, here pictured in early 2010.

Khmer Rouge guards shackled S-21 prisoners to the floor where they would lie for days without food and water. Prisoners were only freed for torture sessions, during which many confessed to crimes they never committed. A large number of the prison’s victims were young children and infants dubbed traitors because of their parents.

Only seven people are known to have survived Cambodia’s largest Khmer Rouge execution centre, according to Seattle’s Killing Fields Museum. And Duch was the centre’s leader. So the tribunal’s reputation was threatened from the moment Duch’s original sentence was announced because, unlike S-21’s prisoners, he could have outlived his incarceration. He was only 69 years old in 2010.

Cambodia’s tribunal has experienced major setbacks and challenges, so this new sentencing decision has established an important precedent. It has corrected a flaw in the tribunal’s administration of justice, but also created new challenges for subsequent trials. Judges will have to decide how to sentence defendants who held lesser leadership roles and who were responsible for fewer killings.

In other words, it was a landmark decision for the ECCC. Life in prison is now viewed as a successful achievement of justice since the death penalty is not a sentencing option in Cambodia. Consequently, it will be interesting to see whether Cambodians consider justice to have been achieved if the defendants currently being tried do not receive life sentences.